Saturday July 21, 2012
The mighty Mini
By N. RAMA LOHAN
For a small car, the Mini Cooper certainly knows how to do big, including the recent gathering of worldwide owners at MINI United 2012.
HANG on a minute, lads, I have a great idea,” Michael Caine nervously attempts to reassure his band of thieves in Italian Job, as their getaway bus rocks precariously at the edge of the mountain on the Swiss Alps, with the tipping end laden with stolen gold bars.
The movie then ends. Just like that.
We don’t know what happens after that, but one thing for sure is that the Mini, so crucial to the movie’s plot, went on to achieve something like pop stardom. It’s not something you could buy, even with a ton of advertising money.
The little British icon may now be a German baby, having gone under BMW management in 2001, but this hasn’t dampened its appeal in the least bit. If anything, the prestige of German engineering has enhanced the Mini’s popularity.
Certainly, the level of interest in the Mini was plain to see at MINI United 2012 (May 11-13), an event already into its fourth instalment (the first was in Italy in 2005). It brought together Mini owners from around the world in Le Castellet, France.
Although it was springtime, Le Castellet was a sweltering experience. At the Paul Ricard Circuit, the heat, touching 37°C, was just shimmering off the tarmac. Nobody minded too much, though.
One of the highlights of the event was the Mini exhibition which took enthusiasts through the years, from the Mini’s introduction in 1959 (the Sir Alec Issigonis-designed Morris Mini-Minor, retailed at £496) to its years under Rover, right up to the time it vroomed into its new Bavarian home.
Among the eye-catchers were the David Bowie-inspired chrome Mini, the XXL (a stretched limo one might have dubbed the Maxi), the two-headed Classic and a bunch of other odd-ball designs.
Then there was the unveiling of the all-new limited edition (only 2,000 units), track-burning Mini John Cooper Works GP 12, successor to the 2006 Mini Cooper S with John Cooper Works GP Kit. The GP 12 is the fastest car yet to come out of the John Cooper stables. It clocked 8’23” a lap at the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife circuit. The car boasts full-adjustable race suspension and specially-designed racing tyres, with a race-spec braking system thrown in for good measure. It also comes with wind-cutting features, like large front and rear aprons, eye-catching side skirts, a roof spoiler and a fresh, new rear diffuser.
This little dynamite’s twin-scroll turbo engine provides some serious torque, and boy does it love to rev.
Tune-d to drive
The festival saw stunt drivers taking the speed-fearing and -loving on screeching rides on an obstacle course, and Minis, old and new, taking to the race track. There was also music to be had, courtesy of bands like Iggy & The Stooges, Gossip and The Ting Tings.
But while Iggy turned up the raw power, it was some of the local fare that came across as real surprises. French outfit Soma played a spell-binding blend of indie folk rock, even injecting some mandolin flavour into the mix. Charlie Winston knew how to dig deep into the blues, too, with a groove decidedly down-home in nature.
The next day was when the real challenge began. Having requested two cars for our group of five, we were instead persuaded to take a Mini Cooper each on the 1,100km-plus trek from Marseille to Munich, where we were to return the cars to their home.
After a round of serious haggling (by our chaperone, BMW Group Malaysia’s corporate communications manager Sashi Ambi), we managed to reduce the number of cars to three. The brown Mini Cooper S was left to be manhandled by Yours Truly, along with a fellow co-driver.
A quick rev of the engine and a spin around, and it was obvious to us that the Cooper S was a little dynamite that enjoyed being manoeuvred ... especially in sharp turns. Shifting the gear stick with the right hand and handling the steering with the left still took some getting used to, but the wheels had already spun and the open road beckoned.
We got our first chance to put the pedal to the metal on the open roads leading out of Marseille. While the four-cylinder machine predictably has plenty of power in the lower rungs of the transmission, it also has confidence-inspiring power from fourth to sixth gear (courtesy of the – 260 Nm at high speeds – overboost).
You could easily zip past trucks and muscle cars alike.
The interior is a sight for sore eyes, too, with the large speedo-meter a particular visual delight. Despite the power on tap, average fuel consumption is just 6.7 litres per 100km, and the CO2 emission rating is 155g per km. The onboard GPS is accurate in all instances, save for an “incident” (more on that later).
And the Mini’s trademark roadholding makes driving infinitely more enjoyable.
Riding in a king
The contingent made a pit stop at a quaint little restaurant, a large bungalow house somewhere in the boondocks. Lunch was a forgettable experience. Then for the second time in the day, we had our arms twisted.
All of a sudden, a racing green Classic Mini (a Knightsbridge) was unceremoniously thrust upon us ... yes, that small, toaster-looking set of wheels.
Nobody wanted to trade in the Cooper S for the jalopy. Of course.
Unfortunately, somebody’s got to do it, and that unfortunate somebody was me. A quick lesson followed on what the car was all about (no, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist for this) from our “shepherd” Chris Sudergat – a hefty German with a keen sense of humour – who teaches kids how to handle go-karts.
If you’ve never driven a Classic Mini before, you’d be in for a surprise. For starters, the steering wheel is almost horizontal – like you’re driving a lorry. Then there’s the reverse gear shift to contend with. That’s lift up, push far right and then forward.
I used to drive my family’s 1969 Volkswagen 1300 beetle back home, so a quirk like this was fairly familiar, thankfully. Once we hit the road and began our ascent up the French Alps, it became apparent that this car was probably the best choice for this stretch of the journey.
With the car having just four speeds and no stereo system, the drive up the French Alps threatened to be treacherous. But with the sunroof down, a denim jacket and a camouflage scarf wrapped around my neck, I found navigating the winding roads up and down snow-capped mountains exhilarating.
With the crisp mountain air caressing your face and sweeping your hair back, you could not help but feel alive. And if the sights of the mountains don’t do it for you, very little else will. So, this is where they come for those glorious postcard pictures!
What a blast
I felt like I was really living the Italian Job, riding one of those mighty mites – but driving into Italy as opposed to away from it. Nippy would best describe the Classic Mini.
Throughout the entire journey, Sudergat would round up our cars like a “flock” of sheep whenever a gap formed between the convoy; sometimes leading, sometimes, almost tailgating us.
He did this all with a Classic Mini as well.
Following a gas-up break, we hit the Italian highway leading straight to Milan. We were zipping in and out of lanes on the highway with relative ease, leaving sports cars and even an X6 eating our dirt. OK, so they were law-abiding citizens, and we weren’t.
However, there was an all-mighty scare when the car fish-tailed over an unevenly resurfaced stretch of the highway for a couple of seconds that seemed like an eternity.
The journey from Milan to Munich was eventful enough – the GPS missed out a very important flyover, which got us going in circles. This was when the Mini Coupe Cooper S was entrusted to me – all 184hp of it.
If the Mini Cooper S seemed like a whole load of fun, then the Coupe smokes. It’s like a Mini on steroids. This baby will fly, and flew we did on Swiss roads, which earned this wannabe race car driver a stern caution from the BMW folks.
For many stretches of the highway, the speed limit was 80kph. We were doing more than that – considerably more. Heck, the car has a purported top speed of 224kph (the speedometer goes all the way to 260kph). Even with its two-seater configuration, bespoke lowered suspension and active rear spoiler, the Coupe, launched late last year in Malaysia, is still unmistakably a Mini.
Its 1.6 litre engine comes with fully variable valve management that makes the mighty four-cylinder unit the world’s most efficient engine in its displacement class.
My brother-in-law shared this Mini experience with me: after trying out a friend’s Cooper S, he didn’t want to get out of the car. And honestly, that’s really how these machines feel. There’s drive comfort, there’s performance, there’s safety all thrown into the mix.
And it’s this unending romance with a small car that’s kept Mini enthusiasts enthralled all these years. Agreed, the Mini Cooper today is a modern marvel more than a rustic classic, but if one is to move with the times, this was the only logical step forward.
After seeing the gathering of Mini lovers from around the world at MINI United 2012, I can see why this car has never gone out of style and probably never will ... and that’s why it’s a classic.
The MINI United 2012 experience was sponsored by BMW.